Mort: HPL, 75 Years Ago Today

How about another chunk out of the long essay “Conan the Argonaut” by me and Morgan Holmes to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of H. P. Lovecraft? Straight from the word doc, pretty self-explanatory:


After the First World War, paper shortages and printers’ strikes caused costs to go up, and the two Munsey titles Argosy and All-Story also merged to form Argosy-All Story Weekly beginning with the July 24, 1920 issue. This shakeup led to Munsey letting Davis go, although he would return shortly — Davis actually plotted Tarzan and the Ant Men in order to get Edgar Rice Burroughs to write another Tarzan novel, which first saw print in the pages of Argosy early in 1924.

In this turbulent era of the original pulp, Robert E. Howard became an Argosy
reader. Howard told Lovecraft in 1933 that the first time he read a fiction magazine, a copy of Adventure, he was fifteen years old and got the issue in the summer after “I moved into town.” The Howard family settled in Cross Plains, though, in October 1919 when he was only thirteen. If his age was actually fifteen, the year would have been 1921. Given that he remembered reading the magazine from before the merger with All-Story in 1920, fifteen appears to be a misstatement.

Found among Howard’s papers was a list of authors from Adventure with story titles in brackets, including a Talbot Mundy yarn from the September 1, 1919 issue, which better matches the time period of the move to Cross Plains. Howard was probably thirteen when
he began reading pulp magazines, the typical age young men encounter adult fiction. After first discovering Adventure, somewhere between September 1919 and July 1920 the boy who would create Kull and Conan started buying Argosy.



Howard followed in the steps of H. P. Lovecraft, born in 1890 and over fifteen years his senior, who was a devoted reader of the Munsey pulps during his own youth. The Necronomicon Press chapbook Uncollected Letters presents a brief comment by Lovecraft on the Irvin S. Cobb story “Fishhead,” obviously an influence on his own writings, sent to the editor of The Cavalier circa January 1913. A much longer letter addressed to
the editor of The All-Story Weekly circa February 1914 opens with this comment: “Having read every number of your magazine since its beginning in January, 1905, I feel in some measure privileged to write a few words of approbation and criticism concerning its
contents.” Lovecraft mentions reading the Burroughs novels Tarzan of the Apes and The
Gods of Mars
and decides, “At or near the head of your list of writers Edgar Rice Burroughs undoubtedly stands.” In addition to many other authors referenced in passing, he states that “I have read every published work by Garrett P. Service, own most of them, and await his future writings with eagerness.” Service, a professional astronomer, was one of the pioneer authors of modern science fiction featured in the Munsey magazines. And in an April 16, 1935 letter to the fan and fellow Weird Tales contributor Richard F. Searight, Lovecraft notes another Munsey title, Railroad Man’s Magazine, writing “I followed that fascinating, red-covered periodical from its start to its finish” — a span of years from 1906 to 1919.

Lovecraft’s reading of the Munsey pulps and his letters to All-Story Weekly are well chronicled by science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz in his 1970 book Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of “The Scientific Romance” in the Munsey
Magazines, 1912-1920.
Moskowitz quotes from a Lovecraft letter published in The All-Story Cavalier Weekly for August 15, 1914, commenting on the recent merger of the titles: “Many writers, familiar and unfamiliar, good and bad, come from The Cavalier to the readers of The All-Story. Out of these I trust the best will be permanently retained, and
the others gradually eliminated. The greatest benefit derived from the amalgamation undoubtedly will be the return to The All-Story of George Allan England, who, to my mind, ranks with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Albert Payson Terhune as one of the three supreme literary artists of the house of Munsey. Mr. England’s Darkness and Dawn trilogy is on a par with the Tarzan stories, and fortunate indeed is that magazine which can secure as contributors the authors of both. Other Cavalier authors of extreme merit are Zane Grey, whose novels of the West have such a fund of graphic local color; and Edgar Franklin, whose stories, both serious and humorous, have so long entertained the readers of the Munsey magazines. . . .”

That this future star of Weird Tales would have read Burroughs and George Allan England is not a surprise, but the mention of Zane Grey and Albert Payson Terhune, famous as a
writer of dog stories, breaks any stereotype a novice fan might have of Lovecraft as a fantasy purist — clearly he read all the content in several runs of the Munsey fiction magazines. In his H. P. Lovecraft: A Life from 1996 S. T. Joshi followed Moskowitz by over two decades with a truncated account of Lovecraft surfacing in print in the Munsey letter columns. Out of the legion of highly subjective comments Joshi tossed into his narrative, one is especially — if inadvertently — humorous: “This is an appalling amount of popular fiction for anyone to read.”

If Joshi seems to miss the tremendous bedrock educational value provided by the Munseys for a writer of popular fiction such as Lovecraft, still he recognized the pivotal role Argosy played in his subject’s life and career. In a letter to the September 1913 issue of The Argosy the twenty-two year old Providence native attacked the romance stories of Fred Jackson featured in the magazine, setting off a debate in the letter column that would last over a year — and leading to an invitation on the side for Lovecraft to enroll in the amateur journalism movement. As Joshi states: “It is worth reflecting on what the whole Argosy/All-Story battle over Fred Jackson meant to Lovecraft. In a sense we owe thanks to Mr Jackson. . . for making the rest of Lovecraft’s career possible, for there is
no telling how long he would have continued to vegetate in the increasingly hothouse atmosphere of 598 Angell Street.”

The debt the magazine Weird Tales owes the Argosy letter columns perhaps is even
more incalculable, since the amateur journals gave Lovecraft the excuse to exercise
his formidable talent for tales of atmospheric horror. Before the premiere issue of Weird Tales hit the newsstands in March 1923, Lovecraft had published no less than twenty-five
stories and vignettes — at that very moment “The Lurking Fear” was appearing serially in Home Brew. Among the tales that had seen print you may count “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” “Nyarlathotep,” “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “The Picture in the House,” “The White Ship,” “The Music of Erich Zann” and “Herbert West — Reanimator.”

Edwin Baird, the first editor for Weird Tales, eagerly accepted a batch of five stories submitted by Lovecraft, including “Dagon” which originally had appeared in the amateur press publication The Vagrant for November 1919 — “Dagon” would be the author’s first
professional appearance in the magazine in the issue for October 1923. As L. Sprague de Camp reports in Lovecraft: A Biography from 1975, “Of the eleven issues of Weird Tales from October, 1923 to February, 1925, Lovecraft appeared in nine, once with a poem and the other times with stories.”

Worth note is that before submitting “Dagon” to Baird in his Chicago offices, Lovecraft had tried it on another magazine, thought to have been Black Mask, which began publication in 1920. Even as his initial group of submissions was being readied for appearance, in August and September of 1923 Lovecraft was creating a new tale of horror titled “The Rats in the Walls,” which he submitted not to Weird Tales — but to Argosy All-Story Weekly!

In a November 8, 1923 letter to Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft mentioned “the professional rejection of this piece by R. H. Davis, Esq. of the Munsey Co. . . . tho’ admitting it hath some merit, holds it too horrible for the tender sensibilities of a delicately nurtured publick.” He told Long that he was sending the story on to Baird that
very day. In 1930 he said in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, “I must try the Argosy some day, though I gave up the Munsey group in disgust when the celebrated Robert H. Davis turned down my ‘Rats in the Walls’ as ‘too horrible and improbable’ — or something like that — some seven years ago.”

In the game of What If? a world where Davis also had recognized Lovecraft as a major
talent who would flourish and last the long years along with an O. Henry or a Conrad and achieve a standing in literature that a “Max Brand” could never hope to see is quite intriguing. If Lovecraft had been able to abandon the fledgling publication Weird Tales in favor of the powerhouse market of Argosy, would Weird Tales have lasted long enough
to provide Robert E. Howard with a home for his own first batch of stories?

To his great credit, Baird was wildly enthusiastic over “The Rats in the Walls” and rushed it into print in his March 1924 issue. The addition of Lovecraft to the roster of contributors was the major coup for Baird. Before “Dagon” in October 1923, what did the magazine have to offer? Editorial assistant Otis Adelbert Kline, later known for closely imitating the interplanetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs, had some fiction. Chicago resident Vincent Starrett, a brilliant writer of books-about-books but an indifferent fictioneer, contributed two stories. Clark Ashton Smith placed two poems in those pulp pages, and reprints by Poe and Bierce also added literary value. The cornerstone for the mythic reputation of Weird Tales, without question, was and is H. P. Lovecraft.

In the six issues of the magazine before the exciting advent of Lovecraft, one of the most prolific contributors was Baird’s second editorial assistant, Farnsworth Wright, who
provided no less than four stories: “The Closing Hand,” “The Snake Fiend,” “The
Teak-Wood Shrine,” and “An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension” — with nothing
close to “The Rats in the Walls” among them. After the first thirteen issues Wright would succeed Baird as editor of the pulp, and while he achieved certain high points — the discovery of Robert E. Howard paramount among them — in many ways he dropped the ball that Baird had set rolling. Whether Wright was jealous of Lovecraft’s far greater talent may never be known, but his fickle editorial policies baffle fans to this day. He initially rejected Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” only to be talked by Donald Wandrei into looking at it again, and completely passed over “At the Mountains of Madness” and various other stories, derailing Lovecraft from the apparent fast track for his fiction that Baird so clearly had set down.

In his letters Lovecraft sometimes mentions Wright favorably, but the frequency of negative appraisals is staggering — as in a September 18, 1930 letter to Lee Alexander Stone, where Lovecraft wrote, “Your fellow-trencherman Bernard Dwyer lately heard from the W.T. author Henry S. Whitehead, who says that Wright uniformly rejects his best stories. Very like Wright—whose bland dumbness transcends my utmost limits
of comprehension.”

In 1927 the Popular Fiction Publishing Company, publishers of Weird Tales, entertained the idea of releasing what would have been the first book collection of Lovecraft’s tales. That prospective title did not appear, but they did issue The Moon Terror and Other Stories that year, apparently ghost-edited by Wright, a hardback using fiction reprinted from the magazine. The title story by A. G. Birch is backed up by “Ooze” by Anthony Rud, from the very first number of Weird Tales, “Penelope” by Vincent Starrett and “An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension” by Wright — one of the most lackluster collections of all time, this book became a perennial offering in the pages of Weird Tales and finally sank to the status of a free bonus for fans subscribing to the magazine. No one can say with certainty that the proposed Lovecraft collection would have sold better in that era than The Moon Terror, but all things being equal, today a Lovecraft book from 1927 would be worth thousands of dollars a copy whereas the Wright collection only attracts casual interest from completist collectors of Weird Tales.

A November 4, 1935 letter to Richard Searight offers one of Lovecraft’s most poignant summations of having Wright as an editor and Weird Tales as almost the only contemporary market open to the type of fiction he was writing:

Glad your Chicago visit was pleasant. I have no doubt that Wright is a delightful & congenial chap, though his capricious editorial policy does give me a large-sized cervical pain! He has consistently turned down my best work (though I no longer send to him) on the ground of length, while at the same time taking far longer things (for the most part utter tripe) from others. It is clear to me that he does not like my work, no matter what he says to the contrary. He might be willing to condescend to take short pieces, but (though accepting such from Kline, Bernal, & everybody else) draws the line at long pieces. Well — he can go to hell for all of me — though I suppose I may some day shoot him some odds & ends if I ever get writing in quantity again & have a plenitude of left-overs. His financial policy, too, is not very encouraging. Wandrei thinks the magazine is hard hit — so I wouldn’t criticize Wright if he shared the losses (as respects his salary) with those whose work makes the magazine possible. But they tell me he still draws his full salary on time! Glad to hear you’ve received a cheque for April contributions. That means, I trust, that my client Mrs. Heald will get paid for the “Out of the Æons” which I ghost-wrote — & she promised to pay for the job as soon as Wright paid her. I could use that cash right now to splendid advantage!

In a year and a half after writing that letter, Lovecraft would be dead and the Golden Age of Weird Tales would be over.

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